Artist Profile: Jesse Hulcher

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I'm A Wiz With Computers, 2011 

In Web Presence, you password-hack your deceased father’s gmail account and display it in the gallery on a computer, logged-in, as an ‘available to chat’, contact.  The work is a loose ontological study of sorts, referring to both life during and after existence in the form of an always preserved online presence.  It also demonstrates another way that aura sustains itself in digitally mediated space.  Is this more than just sentiment? How do you confront or deal with the permanence of identity online, within the archive, etc.?

It’s definitely more than sentiment for me because it’s about sentiment. I was actually hesitant to make the piece initially because I didn’t want it to be perceived as a strictly cathartic exercise. For me, it’s about a few things. It’s about these records of ourselves that exist online. It’s about the way time is represented online. And it’s about attempting to do something that can’t be done. We can’t communicate with people who’ve died. They’re not actually there on the other end of the gmail chat. But by password-hacking my father’s gmail account, I was able to reproduce his presence in my life. I didn’t live with him and didn’t live in the same city or state. So, his web-presence was his most common presence in my life. By logging him in on a dedicated computer, I’d recreated that presence and at times even managed to surprise myself for a split-second upon logging into my own account. It was always a pleasant surprise to see him “available to chat”.

Yes, there is personal sentiment. But it’s also simply about finding emotional or spiritual uses for technology. I’ve built a couple of machines that were also meant to provide some conduit for communication with the deceased; an automated ouija board, which spoke aloud to the gallery using the text-to-speech software of an old hacked power-pc and an automated theremin which was played by a servo controlled arm whenever an EMF meter measured a ghostly reading.

I’m currently not thrilled with the semi-permanence of online identity. My old URL was recently purchased and is now home to a blog about weight loss programs and online poker tournaments. It wouldn’t be a huge deal if the blog entries were signed using the name of the URL. Instead the entries are signed “COPYRIGHT © 2012 · JESSE HULCHER”. I find that fairly annoying. I also love it when I get an email from an ex-girlfriend and gmail decides that this is the right moment to provide us with links on “how to get back together”. The internet knows our histories.

In 1971, when Abbie Hoffman wrote, Steal This Book, bookstores ceased from carrying it due to a large number of readers physically stealing the book.  Today, with the Internet, ‘stealing’ is clearly more ubiquitous, made easy and largely contestable in its justification and implications.  With, 40 Gigs to Freedom –or— Hot Shit, you begin to address these ideas of dissidence and counterculture by ‘consensually’ stealing music, movie and books that actually condone stealing. But what happens when this allegedly ‘free’ content ends up on the Best Seller’s List or can eventually only be purchased—severing itself from the author’s ideology? Could you speak more about the digital shift within pirated content? Where do you position yourself in it all?

Yeah, it’s about the intentions of the artists and the publishers who’re creating these works. When you’re releasing a piece of media through a commercial publisher you and your publisher attempting to make a profit. It’s debatable as to where these artists lie in the spectrum of earnest intentions. But the publisher certainly has no interest in having these products stolen, aside from the brief amount of press that would arise.

My guess is that the phrase is used today, more often than not, to evoke some false pretense of counter-culture idealism. I’d be much more inclined to believe that Abbie Hoffman had a sincere interest in seeing readers steal his book. The band “System of a Down”, on the other hand, isn’t quite as convincing. I think that they were actually quoted as being upset that the record had been “leaked” (stolen) before its commercial release. If that’s not a philosophical conflict, I don’t know what is.

So, on one hand, the piece is probably meant to call some potential bluffs. But it’s also about following directions. I’ve been asked by these artists and their publishers to steal this media. So, this is what I’ve done. I’m also considering changing the title of the piece to “Empy Gestures -or- Come at Me, Bro”.

Playing with authenticity, cult of celebrity and exchange value, you auction off mint-in-box copies of Men In Black and Men in Black II, both signed by comedian Michael Ian Black on Ebay.  By ‘legitimizing’ or attempting to inflate the value of a highly acclaimed, popular film like Men in Black with the signature of a D-list celebrity you create a conflict that attempts to resolve itself when placed in auction.  Can you elaborate more on your strategy here?  

This piece is about a certain level of supposed serendipity involved in this performative event. “Men In Black” and “Men In Black II” dvd’s are sold “Mint In Box” with autographs by “Michael Ian Black”, while my wardrobe for the event was provided by “Making It Big”, plus sized clothing for women. Once this explanation has been condensed to the small amount of text that is allowable in an ebay auction title it reads: “MIB, MIB II, MIB, MIB signed, MIB wardrobe”. There were some other contenders for possible MIB mentions. But they made even less than me wearing a tie-dyed maternity dress to a stand-up show.

So, there is a sense that this is somehow a perfect occurrence, or that the stars have somehow aligned for this ebay auction, so to speak. But it’s also about the reflexive nature of the performance itself. It is about D-List celebrity. It is about value.

There was a lot of planning that went into it.The most intense question, however, was, “How do I get all of this to happen without him refusing to participate because he’s uncomfortable with my behavior/appearance or uncomfortable with the items potentially being resold or uncomfortable with feeling like he’s being made fun of?” So, I made the decision that I wouldn’t speak to him at all throughout the meeting.

I took my sister to the show in DC, which is where she lived at the time. After it was over she asked him to sign the dvd’s for her and had a photo taken with him. Then she asked if she could get a photo of he and I together as well. I took off my jacket and the dress fell out. I had decided to make no expression whatsoever, if possible, because it’s the way that I’d imagined he might react, given the situation. He made the same face, the photo turned out well and some guy in Chicago bought the dvd’s. That is definitely the strangest part of it all.

The Ramones were well known—amongst other things—for playing very fast and very brief sets. Most often times than not their song structure can be reduced to three-chords and most are only two minutes long.  Road to Ruined repeats the already repetitive sounds of the Ramones, looping certain chord progressions and choruses all the while increasing the track length time in the process (Pinhead is 20 minutes long!).  What results isn’t necessarily something that is annoying or painful, but a neutralization: it almost makes too much sense.  What is being investigated through these repetitive extensions?

My theory is that the cultural identity of the RAMONES is that they produced loud, fast and extremely repetitive songs, which were quite often very short. Listeners who aren’t exactly familiar with their output tend to think that much of their music “sounds the same”, to the point that they might not be able to differentiate between their songs. So, I took what I considered to be their most repetitive songs and made them even more repetitive. I actually attempted to identify the most repetitive parts of the most repetitive songs. Once a riff was labeled truly repetitive, I took that section and multiplied its length by ten. So, a four bar riff was then a forty bar riff.

The structure of their music is also really interesting. Some of their songs contain several distinctly separate riffs and sometimes even multiple bridges. “Bad Brain”, for instance, is basically a loop of 5 or 6 different chord progressions and bridges. So, in a way, their music is already a bit excessive and somewhat modular. I found myself slightly obsessed with some of these songs a couple of years ago, listening to them on repeat on the subway, wishing that the tracks were actually 20 minutes long instead of 2 minutes. So, it wasn’t an exclusively conceptual piece. It’s meant to be heard. I loved listening to the album after I finished it. So, I would agree with you that there is a succinct concept and an effective realization of that concept. But the result is also meant to be experienced. Maybe the conclusion is that, yes, their music is very repetitive, and one might find that to be fairly annoying. However, if you give them a chance, you’ll find some really unique songwriting and begin to discern an almost structuralist agenda.

Maybe they themselves felt that their music was too repetitive to be played for more than 2 minutes at a time. That could have plenty to do with why many of their songs were so short. My feeling is that they almost couldn’t be long enough. I still really enjoy listening to the “Bad Brain” edit, because it’s a track that features so many different riffs and bridges and it’s the only one that I allowed myself to rearrange, to some extent. All of the other tracks begin and end as they always did. They just feature longer sections throughout. Because “Bad Brain” contains so many different sections, which just abruptly seem to come out of nowhere, one after another. I kind of wanted to be lost in the middle of that song, and to be randomly bombarded with an unexpected riff. So, for me, the piece is also experiential.


Age:

I’m 31. But my brain keeps auto-correcting my age to 21. 

Location:

I’m currently back in New York City. But I’ve lived in 10 different states! One of my other favorite cities is Pittsburgh, PA. I’ve moved around a lot. 

How long have you been working creatively with technology?

I’ve been working creatively with technology since I was a kid, definitely. I was really excited about making videos early on. As soon as computers and the Internet made their entrance into my life I was enthusiastically misusing those things as well.

How did you start? Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

I started out making videos with a camcorder. I also liked making books and moved on to recording some “audio-books” with a tape-recorder, which were all improvised. I don’t have much of that stuff anymore, unfortunately. I was definitely heartbroken when my sister was inspired to make her own videos and recording over my favorites in the process. I’ve made plenty more since then.

I was similarly inspired by computers and the Internet in general. During computer courses I was often much more interested in replacing the OS’s pictoral iconography than I was in practicing my typing ability. A lot of time was spent reediting application icons by creating new ones pixel by pixel. A friend and I also used computer class as an opportunity to hack into the grading system. We changed a few student’s grades. I somehow managed to not be suspended for this event. I was, however, expelled later for drawing a large face on the wall of my math classroom in addition to disassembling my desk in history and writing misspelled profanity all over my book-covers. Another suspension came later when I posted a sign in the window of our field-trip van, which read, “Help, we’re being kidnapped!” The police and my principal didn’t find was funny. But my art teacher, who was pulled out of the van at gunpoint, did, somehow. So, I feel like I’ve always been interested in repurposing situations, systems and technologies. But I try to get the police involved in my work as little as possible these days.

Alternately, I was regularly thrown offline by the powers that be on AOL in the early nineties for what I will now term “experimental conversation”. A few years later, I was getting banned from message boards for hacking them and/or turning them into monstrous GIF-collages complete with embedded midi backing-tracks. Online communities initially hated me, but would grow to love me after I returned for the fifth or sixth time to have fun with that medium. At this point, I think that my misadventures during the early years of the Internet have the most in common with what I’m doing today. I like “doing it wrong”.

Fortunately, I don’t get into trouble quite as much at this point. But about a year ago, I received an early morning phone call from the president of a well-known computer company, which was much more well known in the 1990’s. He wanted to know why I was comparing his company to a well-known “gangster-rap” group. The group in question was also more popular in the 1990’s. To make a long story short, I’m still learning lessons about how not to title my solo-exhibitions. 

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I went to undergrad at the Atlanta College of Art (RIP) where I was a digital video major. I was initially split between that and sculpture. But I went with video because it seemed like the most open-ended route and, at the time, I didn’t have any understanding of what video meant in an ”Art” context. So, I partially went with video because it seemed strange and didn’t make complete sense to me at the time. In addition to this, I actually handed my course application form to the student sitting next to me and asked him to fill it out. He actually checked “Video” and selected the courses. That was that. I made a lot of performative video in undergrad and quickly became very comfortable in front of the camera as well as the editing bay.

I went to grad-school at Carnegie Mellon University immediately after undergrad. I started out making machinic sculpture’s out of out old mangled power mac’s and Ouija boards. Lots of technology was being repurposed with spirituality in mind. I forecasted the deaths of everyone in my program one night during class and presented them with a list of the chronological order in which we would all die. There was a bad luck machine at one point. Shortly thereafter I got a little rebellious and started presenting things like “Teddy Ruxpin” dolls which were playing tapes of recorded belches. By the end of the program I was back to making performative video, but which were, at this point, also tainted by a desire to horrify everyone around me. It was viral video as “horror” before the phenomenon of youtube.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I wouldn’t say that I use a lot of traditional media. I work with video, HTML, sound, kinetic sculpture, electronics, performance and whatever else I can figure out how to misuse in a meaningful way. But I’d say that part of my early attraction to mediums like video was precisely the fact that they can incorporate things like traditional 2D media. So, my attitude toward new media is that it’s actually inclusive of just about every other medium and not so much an exclusion or avoidance of anything else. I like to do so many things and I feel like they’re all involved in one place or another. My choice to make the work that I make is always dependent on what ideas seem more interesting than others. Sometimes I have ideas for 2D work. But they’re generally not as interesting to me as what I end up spending my time doing. 

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

I curate exhibitions and screenings occasionally. I’ve been writing music as long as I can remember. I also love to write. I love language, in terms of human expression as well as something like HTML. I wrote my first “novel” a year or two ago and that was a really fulfilling experience. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

I am curating a few episodes of  “Acid Rain Production”, which is a video art series that airs in New York City monthly. That’s a program, which was created and organized by Jerstin Crosby. And starting in March, I’ll have a solo exhibition on display at “Interstate Projects” in Brooklyn. The show is going to be called “The Remaster Cycle”. I hope to not receive any phone-calls about that. 

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

In the past I’ve been a college professor and I’ve also worked in galleries and museums. I decided to take a break from teaching, for the time being, as all of my students were older than I was and they didn’t seem thrilled about that. I’ll go back to that at some point. I also left a full-time position as video-tech at a museum in order to spend some time with a dying parent.

Now I’m working part-time as video-tech at a museum. But I also work part-time in tech-support at a computer store. The latter is exceedingly more inspirational and fulfilling in terms of human experience and genuine learning. It informs my artwork to a great extent. And I’m happier doing that stuff. The pay has dropped off pretty steeply. But I’m still laughing all the way to bank. (Although, this is only because I have a very dark sense of humor.)

As someone who often works with new media, I can’t avoid inspiration when I’m dealing people’s computer problems. I sometimes forget about how privileged I am as a youngster (relatively speaking), having grown up in the wake of the stone-age (relatively speaking), until the next time I try to teach an adult how to use a computer mouse or a track-pad. This can often become a thirty-minute conversation. These are actually still completely foreign and abstract concepts to many of our parents and grandparents. Experiences like this keep me grounded and inspired continually.

Did you know that “Angry Birds Rio” isn’t available in the Brazilian app-store? Talk about life’s cruel ironies! Inspiration is everywhere.

Who are your key artistic influences?

If we’re talking about early influences, I’d say William Wegman and Mike Smith are two artists that struck a major chord with me. In a non-‘Art’ context, people like Chris Elliott and Julia Davis have been pretty inspiring. I’m also inspired by Internet-users everywhere, people who know a game-changing usb-drive when they see one and anyone who wear a lot of “Grateful Dead” t-shirts.

When I was a teenager I was actually taken unknowingly and against my will to a “Phish” concert. This has probably had long-lasting, although potentially unnoticed, effects on my life. But I’ll keep you all updated as it continues to rear its head in unexpected ways. It’s most recently made a significant impact on the redesign of my website. 

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

I’ve collaborated here and there on things with friends and artists who’s work I look up to; videos, writing, art-shows, etc. I think of performative video as collaborative almost by definition. I did a couple of residencies at the now closed Experimental Television Center (RIP) in Owego, NY. Those were really amazing marathons of live collaboration, all of which was documented on camera. My entire body of work from the first trip I took to Owego was actually stolen on the last day of the residency! So, I actually have some “Lost Tapes” to release someday. I just have to find them first. :)

But more to the point, I’ve done a lot of work with an anonymous Internet-collaborator and pen-pal, whom I first encountered in 2002; “Pony Eyelashes~”. Pony Eyelashes~ is a stranger that I met during my days as an internet community instigator. I think we sort of noticed each other simultaneously while trolling internet message boards and it was love at first site. We quickly decided to team up and rendezvous at various other sites for fun and digital experimentation. We built labyrinth-like “websites” within message boards and generally did whatever we could to take the message board medium to the next level. “Message-board jamming” was an amazing experience and a great way to collaborate with thousands of people in real time. It was an ever-changing, living video/conversation that was always there right where you left it. That is, unless you were banned or the thread was deleted for being off-topic, both of which usually happened.

From there we built myspace pages together. Then we made a geocities (RIP) nightmare. And finally we collaborated on a real “grown-up” website with a paid domain name and hosting; “none-of-your.biz”. This is still my site today. We created a single-channel video entirely out of HTML, which we titled “HTML the Movie -or- The Resolution Will Not Be Televised”. Most recently I invited Pony Eyelashes~ to edit my novel and also to write the forward for the piece. She or he did a really beautiful job. This person has been a genuine inspiration for me over the past decade.

Pony Eyelashes~ is also the person who taught me how to code HTML and build websites. And all of this was done over the Internet! This may go some distance in explaining why much of my web-design isn’t exactly by-the-book or sustainable. I would probably be a new-media conservator’s nightmare.

Do you actively study art history?

I wouldn’t say that I’m digging too deeply into art history at the moment. I’m more into reading people’s thoughts about what we’re dealing with at present. My root interests are in the video art and performance of the 1970’s. That’s what excited me as a student. The earnestness, irreverence and open-endedness of video and performance blew me away and made me feel like I had a home and a context to work within as an artist.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

I really enjoy reading critical theory about technology, digital culture and all of the interesting things that people are obsessed with these days; World of Warcraft, Second Life, Farmville, something called “Social Media”?, etc. I love to read about why we’re so interested in being a part of any and all of these communities, how these habits are changing our lives and how they may continue to change our lives. I tend to read a lot of the MIT press stuff. It’s my favorite stuff to look at.

A couple of years ago, while interviewing for a teaching job as New Media lecturer at a University, I was asked toward the end of the interview, “So, what do you think about Second Life?” I said, “I’d like to teach a class through Second Life.” In a shocking turn of events, I was not invited to take the job.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

I don’t think that I have any serious issues with the ways in which I see new media art displayed. I think we all have to make a decision about whether or not something like a piece of net-art, for instance, should be brought into the gallery or if it should stay on the net. You have to take it piece by piece. I think about context and appropriacy all of the time. I think about the brand of television I’m using to display a video. I think about the way I want the cables to curl on the floor. We all have to make these decisions. It’s not always the best decision to simply drop a projection into a black or white box. But I’m also a fan of the gallery as context. Sometimes a blank space is actually the best choice. In the end, I don’t want to be the person who’s telling anyone else that they’re “doing it wrong".

If I have frustrations about the exhibition of new media, it usually comes from dealing with spaces that seem to have some genuine enthusiasm for exhibiting media art, but who don’t want to maintain or trouble-shoot it. Or heaven forbid cancel the DJ they hired to play at the opening for your new sound installation! Inspiration is everywhere.